‘We’re a few seconds away from switching to the redundant set sequencer. T-minus twenty-seven seconds,’ announced the voice as America watched on in anticipation, eagerly awaiting the launch of a revolutionary new NASA shuttle programme called the Space Transportation System. As the crew of the Columbia prepared to embark on their mission among the stars, the nation patiently waited for the craft to lift off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and soar high into the heavens. Four months later, at one minute after midnight, viewers were glued to their television sets once again to relive the historic moment, this time in celebration of the launch of a revolutionary new concept called music television. In a modest-sized restaurant in the New Jersey city of Fort Lee, a group of producers and executives gathered together to witness the dawn of a new age, and as they shared bottles of champagne and stories of wild ambition coming to fruition, they stared with hypnotic glee at the barrage of surreal colours and outlandish images that were on display. 

‘In the beginning was the music,’ claimed another voice as the first video of this new channel quietly came to an end. ‘But there was no one around to hear it. As the population grew in numbers, music grew in popularity. Man invented the radio, and the phonograph. High fidelity made quite a splash. But it was full-stereo sound that made the explosion. Soon television came along and gave us the gift of sight, but it was cable that gave us the freedom of choice. For a while it seemed there was nothing new on the horizon. Announcing the latest achievement in home entertainment, the power of sight, the power of video, the power of sound: MTV Music Television.’ And so, early one summer morning many years ago, the revolution was televised.

‘I loved watching it. How exciting back then, being a teenager, and having something so creative, so fresh, so new,’ enthused future pop star Janet Jackson, who was just fifteen-years-old when the world changed forever. ‘It was about waiting for your favourite video, and not really knowing what hour it would hit, so you’d have to watch all day long.’ MTV had arrived with little warning, and almost overnight the youth of America were transfixed to their televisions, seduced by an eclectic mixture of music videos, interviews, and visually-arresting commercials. An entire generation were under its spell, and while record labels were as hesitant to embrace it as Hollywood was with home video, its immediate influence on pop culture was undeniable.

The music video was a relatively new artform, but through MTV its true potential was explored as musicians and filmmakers came together to create visuals that would define the decade. In just a few short years MTV would inspire not only the music industry but also cinema, television, fashion, and even politics. Few believed that it would succeed, but along with home video, which also came into its own during the same era, MTV changed how the public consumed their entertainment. ‘Rock video is finally giving the television generation a chance to make its own mark on the tube,’ declared Newsweek as this new channel began to infiltrate the home, and before long MTV had replaced FM radio as the preferred way to enjoy new music.

MTV emerged at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was enjoying a resurgence following the popularity of disco, and as music became visual it allowed fans to enjoy it on a whole new level. ‘It was like the difference between silent films and talkies,’ said Heart singer Anne Wilson. ‘All of a sudden, records could be seen. You could just put it on and party around the TV.’ While music videos seemed like a novelty in the late seventies, they were soon to become an integral part of the music experience. And as both budgets and egos became bloated, the promo video would become more important than the song. But for the children of the eighties, MTV would tell them how to think and how to feel. It dictated their fashion, their opinions, and their lifestyles. For better or for worse, it had become their primary role model.

Five months before its debut, parent company Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment revealed its intentions to launch a music channel that would be broadcast day and night, seven days a week. It seemed like such a ridiculous concept – other than a few new wave artists in Britain, very few musicians had entertained the notion of shooting a video to promote their latest single and so there seemed little demand for such a product. But the notion of combining visuals and a narrative to music was hardly a new idea, as The Beatles had explored this more than a decade earlier with both A Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine. Elsewhere, The Who had adapted their concept album Tommy into a theatrical rock opera. But an entire channel dedicated to nothing but music videos, twenty-four hours a day? Even those who had masterminded this innovative venture feared that it was destined to fail.

Nina Blackwood

‘It didn’t seem like video music as a form of entertainment would take off, as far as a twenty-four-hour channel that kept going and going and going,’ admitted Nina Blackwood, one of the original presenters – or VJs – of MTV. ‘It was a total gamble, because cable was in its infancy. I didn’t even have cable. So, when I took the job, even though I signed a three-year contract, I talked to my manager and my agency and basically said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, I’ll come back to L.A. in six months.’ That was kind of how I looked at it.’ But the powers-that-be were determined for this experiment to succeed, but little could they know just how integral MTV would become for the next twenty years.

The eighties was a decade of excess and glamour, and nowhere was this better personified than with MTV. Representing both the best and worst that the era had to offer, it was vapid, irreverent, and on the surface appeared to offer nothing of intelligence, yet it was pure escapism at a time when the world was attempting to overcome the corruption and recession of the seventies. When real life became too much, one could turn on MTV and become lost in its addictive surrealism. But in much the same way that many feared television would dumb down their children, cable – and especially music television – signalled even more of a threat. Children would spend hours hooked to their screens, and MTV became the latest drug that parents were warned about.

‘MTV is now such a part of American culture that it seems hard to believe that MTV was an idea that almost wasn’t,’ co-creator Robert Pittman told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. ‘Of course, MTV didn’t kill the radio stars. It enshrined them. It energised rock ‘n’ roll culture. Everybody associated with music benefited, from radio stations to Rolling Stone magazine. MTV turned pop music artists into recognisable faces. Before MTV, the top artists were rarely recognised. But within weeks of the launch of MTV, artists began hearing the refrain, ‘I saw you on MTV.’ And MTV had an even wider impact on our culture.’ It could be argued that without MTV there would have been no Michael Jackson, Prince, or Madonna, or at least the superstars they became. The obsession with celebrity that had defined Beatlemania in the sixties would rear its head once again as MTV created a new generation of pop stars and sex symbols.

‘The eighties were a great time to be a pop star,’ claimed Sara Dallin of Bananarama. ‘Just as our career started, so did MTV, appearing on TV screens all over the world like some beacon of the future.’ If Andy Warhol’s maxim that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes is true, then this fame was broadcast on MTV in all its glory as a new generation of pop and rock stars took the world by storm, their every move scrutinised in music videos, documentaries, and concert films. In much the same way that millennials would grow up with YouTube, for the children of the eighties their regular source of entertainment came from MTV. What could have been an unmitigated disaster instead changed almost every aspect of our lives.

‘We saw pretty quickly after we launched in the U.S. that there was the possibility that MTV could become one of the first true global television networks,’ said Tom Freston, one of the key figures behind the launch of this channel. ‘So we began to actively become one of the pioneers in doing that. But we learned fast that you can’t just take a U.S. feed and broadcast it everywhere in the world and expect to have a business. The audience might tune in at first, but soon the novelty wears off. You have to be sensitive to the fact that they want something in their own language, that they want to see hosts they can identify with, and hear music from their own local superstars, as well as from big international names.’ And with the birth of MTV Europe in 1987, music television began to conquer the world.

As the producers gathered together to witness the launch of their new creation, they had hoped this would mark another success story for their corporation, but little could they know what they had just set in motion. MTV was to become the event of the decade, as synonymous with the eighties as Steven Spielberg or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and over the next ten years it would break new ground, garner acclaim, court controversy, and transcend the music video into its own artform, but before the front page headlines, awards ceremonies, and rock ‘n’ roll hedonism there was a simple idea, one that seemed too outlandish that no one would give it their blessing. And from that idea MTV was born. ‘This marks a new step in broadcasting,’ declared John Lack, who had first set the ball rolling a few years earlier with the concept of a music cable channel. ‘We’re combining the best of radio – music and stereo sound – and the best of TV – the pictures – to give viewers something they can’t get anywhere else.’

John Lack

John Lack opened the package on his desk and inspected its contents, finding a dossier that included a press release and VHS videocassette. Carefully sliding the tape into his home entertainment system, for the next six minutes he watched in awe as he witnessed a collection of loosely connected set-pieces that looked straight out of the movies. The soundtrack was mostly forgettable, but he was immediately seduced by the imagery. The accompanying paperwork proposed the concept of a show dedicated to nothing but music videos, and a sample of a pilot episode that was dubbed PopClips. The timing could not have been more perfect; cable television was a relatively new phenomenon and a twenty-four-hour channel that hosted nonstop movies had already begun to cause a minor stir, so perhaps he could do the same with music videos. Very few had been produced by this point, but he believed that they were on the cusp of a new evolution in entertainment. Scrolling to the end of the document he found the name of the individual who had blessed him with this package, and immediately reached for his telephone.

Michael Nesmith had discovered the medium of music videos almost by chance. Having started his career more than a decade earlier as a member of both the pop group The Monkees and its small screen counterpart, he was already experienced with combining music and visuals, especially with their 1968 feature film Head, but it was at the suggestion of Island Records head Chris Blackwell that he film a video to accompany his latest single, Rio. While Nesmith had created his own record label in order to retain control over his work, Island handled the production and distribution of his records. And while many in the industry paid little attention to the potential that promo videos offered, Blackwell felt it could be used as an effective marketing tool. ‘He asked a question that sent me and the entire record industry in a new direction that would forever change the way music was received and embraced,’ recalled Nesmith. ‘He wondered if I would make a promotional clip for Rio that he could use to promote it in London and Europe. I hadn’t any idea what a promotional clip was, but I sensed an artisanal approach at work in Chris’ request that made me agree to produce one without hesitation.’

Nesmith came from a family of innovators. Almost thirty years before he helped to usher in the era of MTV, his mother worked as a secretary for a bank, and regularly making typing mistakes prompted her to find a way to correct them in order to escape the wrath of her employers. As a result, she inadvertently created what would become known as Liquid Paper, a white substance that paints over errors, which would become an integral office tool in the days before computers. By the late sixties she had built a headquarters in the Texan city of Dallas, and in 1979 sold the company to Gillette for a reported $47.5m. Coupled with his own royalties from The Monkees, Nesmith had the financial capital to take Blackwell’s proposition to its logical conclusion by creating a series that showcased the most inspired videos of the day. ‘I didn’t know what I was doing since this was a music video before there were music videos,’ he admitted to Rolling Stone. ‘I said to people, ‘It’s a promotional film. They play it on state television in Europe.’ People just looked at me like I was a bug.’

The potential of the promo video was first explored in 1975 as a way for a rock group to appear on a popular music show without having to personally attend. Queen were hard at work rehearsing for an upcoming tour in support of their fourth album, A Night at the Opera, when they were contacted by the producers of Top of the Pops to perform their latest song, Bohemian Rhapsody, on the show. The band had endured an uncomfortable relationship with this particular programme, as front man Freddie Mercury had dismisses it two years earlier as ‘rubbish.’ But in the eleven years since it had gone on air, they had boasted such artists as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and T.Rex among their legendary guests. Unable to take time out to visit the television studio to perform for the show, they instead opted to shoot a video that could be shown in their place. Produced for approximately £4,500 with director Bruce Gowers, the clip mixed live footage with a recreation of the artwork for their second album, which depicted all four members cast against a black backdrop. Although conceived as a substitute for appearing on the show, the video would mark an important milestone in the history of the medium and was the first to demonstrate its true potential. 

Inspired by the suggestion that Blackwell made of shooting a video for his own song, Michael Nesmith wanted to take the concept even further and create a new television format that he would call PopClips. While Top of the Pops had agreed to air Bohemian Rhapsody, they had refused to do the same for Rio, informing both Nesmith and Island Records that it was the show’s policy only to feature live performances, and so he began to theorise a television show based around music videos. ‘Before the idea occurred to me, I had never thought of it, or heard of it, and when it did pop into my head, it seemingly came from nowhere,’ he claimed in his memoir. ‘In my mind, I was trying to find the analogy or metaphor I needed to understand the music video and where it fit in my life…I thought, ‘Well, the music video is sort of like a video record. And audio records are played on the radio, so a video record should be played on video – on television. There should be a broadcast component for the music video, just like there is for records. There was no US broadcast outlet for music videos, as I had just learned with Rio, but at that moment it was obvious to me that it could be built, and should be built. It was an idea whose time had come.’

But if Nesmith was going to bring his vision to fruition then he needed the support of someone influential within the music industry and, having produced a pilot for PopClips, sent a package to John Lack at Warner Communications. ‘A video radio station, that was my dream. I said video radio a thousand times,’ revealed Lack. ‘HBO went off the air at 2am. Research showed that people wanted uncut, unedited movies, twenty-four hours a day. So The Movie Channel went from three-hundred-thousand customers to two-million in less than a year. The second channel we did was Nickelodeon; it wasn’t called that in those days, but we began developing children’s programming. The third channel I had on the drawing board was music. I’d travelled around Europe, and in every country you would see music shows with video clips. I thought we could show them twenty-four hours a day, if we had permission.’ Sensing the possibilities that a project such as PopClips could hold, Lack agreed to meet with Nesmith to discuss his ideas, and from that meeting the concept of music television was formed.

Michael Nesmith

Lack had relocated from his position at CBS to Warner Cable at an important time for the company. In 1979, American Express purchased fifty per cent of the company to form a new enterprise called Warner-Amex Cable Communication. That same year, Lack was recruited as the executive vice president of programming and marketing. His first priority was to the salvation of the fledging children’s channel Nickelodeon, but deep down he harboured a desire to create something similar for music videos. And when he saw the pilot for PopClips, he knew he had found it. Believing that this would appeal to a similar demographic as the variety comedy show Saturday Night Live – the youth market – he dedicated himself to turning Nesmith’s vision into a reality. ‘These short episodes would be the model for twenty-four hour programming. For the purpose of Nickelodeon, there were eight different episodes delivered, but they ran them over and over,’ explained Nesmith. ‘I was happy the shows had tested well, and the conversation I now had with John Lack was about developing a production structure that would start the new cable channel rolling.’

Nickelodeon was launched at the beginning of the cable television revolution which also saw the arrival of both ESPN and CNN, and while Warner struggled to find an audience for its cinema channel, Lack remained dedicated to his concept of music television. It would be the arrival of a twenty-six-year-old Robert Pittman at the company that would mark the next significant step in developing the format. ‘It was a scary few years,’ Pittman later confessed. ‘The reality was that no basic-cable TV network had ever succeeded. None of them had ever made money. There was a real question mark as to whether any advertising-supported basic-cable network could ever be a profitable venture.’ But Lack was adamant that this would be a success and so took his pitch to the company’s president, Jack Schneider. With his support, Lack and Pittman commenced work on their passion project.

‘A development team I had put together earlier in the year had miraculously worked through all the major hurdles of getting a video music channel on the air – dealing with the musicians’ unions, finding out who had the rights to the videos, getting the videos, determining what our standards would be, working with cable operators on how to get stereo sound, and figuring out how we would shoot the VJ segments,’ explained Pittman. ‘Included in this team were Tom Freston; John Sykes; Carolyn Baker; Steve Casey; Fred Seibert; Mark Booth; and, for a brief period, Robert Morton. But the scepticism about the basic-cable business led the board of directors of the Warner Communications and American Express joint venture to turn down the idea for MTV in late 1980. Fortunately, my immediate bosses, Jack Schneider and John Lack, got us into the court of last appeal – a meeting with Steve Ross, then the chairman of Warner Communications; Jim Robinson, chairman of American Express, and their key executives, including David Horowitz from the Warner side, and Lou Gerstner from the American Express side.’

With the blessing of both Ross and Robinson, MTV was finally given the go-ahead, although without the participation of its main instigator. ‘My option was to continue with Warner-Amex and operate the production side of the channel, but it took me only a few seconds to realise it was not for me,’ recalled Nesmith. ‘I had only wanted an outlet for the music video and the ideas I had for filmmaking – short-form films that would stitch together to create an overall feeling and have an artistic presence. Producing for a cable channel seemed like a dead-end road, in the sense of the cul-de-sac of a luxury housing project. Life might be good, but I would be stuck in that small circle, so I politely declined and went back to my little studio and house in Monterey. I had been paid well for PopClips, and my little band had all made a few bucks from that production, so I was happy to settle deeper into the life of an artist and produce programming for the new outlets that would develop.’

From its inception, MTV was to be a tool marketed at the younger generation which, at the dawn of the eighties, were the latter-day baby boomers and older members of generation X. The most popular music of the era was new wave, which took elements of punk and disco – both of which had begun to lose their appeal with the public – and brought this sound into the new decade. This scene was dominated by such British artists as Duran DuranPsychedelic Furs, and Culture Club. MTV would pledge itself to the promotion of new artists, and included both a song’s parent album and record label at the beginning and end of each video to reinforce this. And with new wave groups being among the few to produce videos for their songs, they would be the most dominant force on this channel.

‘At that point, there was no television aimed at the twelve-to-thirty-four-year-old demographic,’ said Lack. ‘We said, ‘If this channel reached twelve-to-thirty-four-year-olds, we can deliver an audience for advertisers they can’t get through broadcast television.’ Cable providers would sign up new subscribers, because they would be available only through cable. We would sell second-hand hook-ups because mothers and fathers would not allow this shit to be played in the living room: ‘Here’s a TV, go play it in your own bedroom!’ We needed to get the videos for free, the same way radio got singles. I went to Allen Grubman, a hotshot lawyer. I said, ‘I want to meet the presidents of the eight large record companies, as quickly as we can.’ Some agreed because Steve Ross and Warner Communications were involved. PolyGram said no. Clive Davis at Arista laughed at me. He said, ‘Give us a year or two, let’s see how it goes.’’ And so with the format in place, now it was time to sell the concept to both the record labels and their artists.

Robert Pittman

Robert Pittman stumbled into the board room with his arms full of charts that he hastily began to set up as uptight businessmen in immaculate suits waited impatiently for the presentation to begin. Lumbering in behind him was John Sykes, another founding father of this media venture which they were now hoping to sell to yet another record company. They laid out the entire business plan to their audience; how they would break new artists, grow as relevant as radio, and even promote the labels that represented these pop stars. MTV would have a symbiotic relationship with the music industry, and as one thrives and prospers, so will the other. This was the future they were presenting, a brave new world, but who will dare to take this next step into the unknown. Once again, as with every other one of these meetings they had endured in recent weeks, the initial response from the blank faces that stared back at them were a mixture of confusion and indifference. Yet after a moment of reflection each company had relented and agreed to their proposition. But not this one. Pittman and Sykes walked from the offices of MCA Records admitting defeat, but this would not be enough to stop them. MTV was about to make history.

The argument Pittman would make during his pitch of why MTV would not pay for any of the clips it aired was because radio stations did not pay for the songs that they broadcast, but this statement is not entirely true. As author R. Serge Denisoff noted in his retrospective Inside MTV, the network would have to spend approximately $1,000 to master each video and transfer it to one-inch tape. But not every record executive that they performed their presentation for was satisfied by their logic. ‘When MTV came to me, I was perfectly happy to licence our videos to them,’ said CBS president Walter Yetnikoff. ‘My problem was, I wanted CBS to get paid. Their argument was they were just like radio, and radio didn’t pay royalties to labels. But it didn’t cost me anything extra to send a record to radio. With videos, I’d have to spend money.’

Regardless of the refusal of both CBS and MCA to get onboard with their business venture, those behind MTV were convinced that their new product was guaranteed to make an impact. ‘It will be as important as radio, but more importantly, we are targeting to the record buyer,’ insisted Pittman. ‘And we will be putting more of an emphasis on new music than radio does. We will take extra pains, in fact, to sell new music. We will also explain who the new artist is. Radio is going through a big problem because nobody wants to take a shot with new music. But they are all complaining that there is no good music out there, just the same old artists, and the excitement of music is dying down. What we will do is expose a whole new genre of artists, and we will give them familiarity and break them. Radio will then have new artists to draw from.’

Following the acquisition of two-hundred videos to be played on rotation, Lack and Pittman then turned their attention to casting the five young VJs that would appeal to their target demographic. ‘One of the best things about MTV is that I got introduced to Mark Goodman, J. J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, and Alan Hunter,’ declared Martha Quinn, the fifth and final VJ recruited for the new channel. ‘When I first met them, they were the coolest people I’d ever met. And because we all worked together, shared a dressing room together, they were forced to hang out with me. It’s like you have older brothers and sisters and your mom tells them, ‘You have to babysit little Martha today, she has to come along with you all day.’ I was so ecstatic to be with all of them, and that’s still true today.’

The fresh-faced VJs that would be chosen to represent MTV were sourced from a variety of places but each one had one thing in common: they desperately wanted to break into the entertainment industry. ‘I had gone to New York to be an actor, and I was bartending and doing odd jobs,’ recalled Hunter. ‘I’d been there less than a year when I bumped into Bob Pittman at a picnic; it’s a long story, but I went to school in Jackson, Mississippi, and every state had a picnic in Central Park. Bob, the creator of MTV, is a Mississippi fellow as well, so we were introduced by mutual friends. He was in a suit in the middle of a hot summer day in Central Park; I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ He says, ‘What are you doing these days?’ I said, ‘I’m a bartender at the Magic Pan on 57th and 6th. I just got through doing a punk off-off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Talking Heads and Joan Jett music. I was in that David Bowie video Fashion.’ He said he was working on this cable channel that will play videos, and I really had no idea what he was talking about.’

While Hunter would travel to New York City with dreams of becoming an actor, Goodman set his sights on working in the radio industry. An avid fan of heavy metal in his youth, he soon found himself at WPJL. ‘I started at WPLJ in the summer of 1980,’ he explained. ‘Radio stations take on the personalities of the program director, and the guy who was running WPLJ was an uptight sphincter muscle. But Carol [Miller; DJ] and I started hanging out; we’d see each other late at night, and on weekends…To make things more complicated, ABC Radio, which owned WPLJ, had very strict guidelines about employees going out, but within months, we were living together. If they had known, they would have had a problem with it, especially because we were right next to each other on the air. But I stayed at WPLJ less than a year before MTV happened.’

J. J. Jackson

Much like Goodman, Jackson also came from the world of radio. The oldest of the original VJs by eleven years, Jackson was a New York native who spent his childhood in the Bronx, where his mother introduced him to the music of Chuck Berry, Count Basie, and Elvis Presley. Following his service in the Marine Corps, he enrolled on a course to learn how to be a DJ, and entered the world of radio with Boston’s WBCN-FM. After a decade at the station, he relocated to Los Angeles where he presented the Eyewitness News for KABC-TV. Two years later, he returned to New York and into the offices of MTV. ‘I thought it would be a nice promotional tool, but I never knew it would get to be this monster thing,’ he confessed. ‘It still amazes me how people react now. I went to a local club two weeks ago, and I started dancing with Patty Smyth [vocalist; Scandal] and people started staring at us. The odd thing was her record was playing on the sound system, but they didn’t recognise her. They were looking at me because I’m the one who comes into their home every day.’

The team of VJs that would populate MTV during its early years were completed with Blackwood who, unbeknownst to her colleagues, had posed naked for the adult magazine Playboy just three years earlier. ‘I was out in L.A., working as a harpist and studying acting, and also working on three different projects that I was functioning as a host – or what later would be termed a VJ,’ she told Yahoo. ‘Through a series of two different auditions in Los Angeles, they said they wanted to fly me to New York to meet Bob Pittman. I was a little hesitant about moving to New York, though, so the executive producer, Sue Steinberg, and producer, Robert Morton, took me to a very nice restaurant, Tavern on the Green, for lunch. I proceeded to inhale a piece of bread roll, and it got stuck in my throat and I was seriously choking to death. It just went down the wrong way. It was lodged in my throat and I was at the table gasping. Morton had to give me the Heimlich! After the piece of roll came out and everything calmed down, he looked at me with his New York accent and he said, ‘You owe me.’ And that’s when I decided, ‘Okay, I’ll take the job.’’

News of a music channel was first announced by Warner-Amex on 3 March, 1981, less than five months before they planned to go on the air. With the videos playing continuously throughout the day, the VJs would only show their faces on occasion to give viewers the latest in music news, but as the date of its premiere approached some record labels grew apprehensive. There had never been anything quite like MTV, so how could they guarantee that it would be a success? ‘We were taking a very deliberate gamble,’ claimed Pittman. ‘If MTV worked, it would sell records, and record companies would produce more videos. If MTV didn’t work, record companies would probably not produce more videos – but who would care, because we’d be out of business anyway.’

The final piece of the puzzle for MTV would come with Les Garland, one of four individuals often credited with the conception of the music channel. After building a reputation in radio, he was hired by Atlantic Records to oversee their West Coast enterprise. ‘Pittman invited me to dinner sometime in 1980,’ he recalled. ‘He said, ‘Does Atlantic make music videos?’ I said, ‘A few.’ He said, ‘How do you determine who you’re gonna make one for?’ A lot of it had to with touring: if a band wasn’t going to Europe, we might shoot a video to send there instead. If we got some traction, then we could send the act over. He said, ‘Garland, do you think music videos twenty-four hours a day, kind of like a radio station, would work on TV?’ Immediately, I said, ‘Yes, I do. I think we’re headed into a new age with cable television.’’

The time had finally come. By 10pm on Friday, 31 July, 1981, the festivities were in full swing. It felt like a lifetime since Michael Nesmith had walked into his office and now John Lack was dressed for success as he waited for his limousine to arrive. The large group of MTV employees and their dates gathered together in Manhattan and, with most of the party taking their seats on a hired bus, made their way across Fort Washington Bridge from New York and New Jersey, where a venue known as The Loft had been procured for the evening. Excitement was high, but so was fear. Everything that they had worked so hard to achieve would either make or break them over the next few hours. But alcohol was plentiful and so was the laughter. ‘We were all there in that little Fort Lee basement watching MTV blast off, basically just drinking a lot,’ said Hunter. ‘I still had a starving-actor mentality, so for me, it was all about the wings and the booze, of course. Just gotta stuff it down! But while we’re having fun, celebrating the launch of the greatest job we’ll probably ever have, the poor executives are looking at the TV feed, noticing that it had stuttered and stopped, and wondering why. And then they’re on the phone to the uplink centre in Long Island.’

Originally they had wanted to use the infamous words given by the Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong as he became the first human being to step foot on the surface of the moon more than a decade earlier: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ But as the start date drew near, Armstrong’s lawyers reached out to the producers at MTV to inform them that they had been denied authorisation to use his voice. This would force them to improvise before it was too late. ‘The night before we went on air, Fred Seibert says to me, ‘We just can’t sign on, we have to say something. John, it’s like a time capsule. What would you say?’’ recalled Lack. ‘I told him, ‘I’d say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll.’ The rocket ship goes up, the man lands on the moon, and that’s it.’ And yet despite a successful launch, for those gathered together in The Loft in Fort Lee, all they could see were the failures.

Buggles

Was music television created to serve as a companion to FM radio, or to replace it as the dominant way to consume media? Did the arrival of MTV mark the end of an era for the traditional DJ? If the first song that the network chose to play in those early Saturday morning hours were any kind of indication, then one would think so. Naysayers and doubting Thomases were convinced that such an outrageous concept could never work, and as the executives from Warner-Amex watched on in horror as one technical issue followed another, they feared the cynics could be right. Every single aspect of production had been closely scrutinised before the premiere, but when venturing into uncharted waters there are no guarantees. The night’s entertainment blasted off to a promising start with the launch of the Columbia shuttle, and after John Lack’s declaration of rock ‘n’ roll, MTV officially began with the appropriately-titled Video Killed the Radio Star, and the age of vision had begun.

‘I’d read J. G. Ballard and had this vision of the future where record companies would have computers in the basement and manufacture artists,’ revealed Trevor Horn, the co-songwriter and vocalist that would usher in MTV with his short-lived new wave group Buggles. ‘I’d heard Kraftwerk‘s The Man-Machine and video was coming. You could feel things changing. The original idea was that the Buggles – a robot Beatles – would never be seen, but once we had a hit we were as anonymous as an explosion. My outside glasses in the video were inspired by Elvis Costello’s. I came out of the opticians with these big specs…Video Killed the Radio Star was the first pop video played on MTV. I mean, they would, wouldn’t they?’ The song was the result of Horn and bandmate Geoff Downes, along with solo artist Bruce Woolley, whose own version of Video Killed the Radio Star predated the Buggles by less than three months.

The science fiction-themed video was filmed over the course of a single day in a London studio on a budget of approximately $50,000, and featured a loose narrative in which a young girl listening to the song on her radio finds herself in a futuristic laboratory where a mad scientist, portrayed by Horn, is creating a beautiful woman through a giant test tube. Noted for marking early appearances of Farscape actress Virginia Hey and film composer Hans Zimmer, the video’s themes of artificial pop stars and mass production would seem oddly prophetic with what was to come. ‘A couple of years later, someone called me up and said, ‘Your song was actually used as the first video on this new channel that started in New York on cable,’’ explained Downes. ‘I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, okay, what’s the deal with that?’ Of course, what I didn’t know was MTV was going to make a massive inroad into the whole psyche of American culture very quickly. So it’s always something one views in hindsight rather than that it was a big, exciting thing at the time, because it wasn’t. Nobody knew how well MTV was going to do.’

That much was certainly true. As the producers and VJs watched the video come to an end and cut to a commercial, there was a collective sigh of relief. Then the second clip began. Yet unlike the one that had preceded it, this time the video had been created exclusively for MTV. ‘The first I heard about it was when Chrysalis [Records] approached us about shooting a live performance to be aired on a television channel that was to launch in August. It was called MTV,’ recalled Pat Benatar in her autobiography Between a Heart and a Rock Place. ‘We weren’t told what to expect from the video shoot, just that it would be shot near the docks in the warehouses of Manhattan’s far West Side. There was no stylist, no wardrobe direction. So I just wore my own clothes: black pants and a striped shirt…As we were getting ready, the director walked over to us. ‘We’re going to turn a fan on you, and I want you to just do what you do. Just go!’ That told me he didn’t get what we did. I wasn’t a freakin’ runway model. ‘What do you mean, ‘Just go?’’ I said. Just go? I don’t just go. ‘Well, you know, start posing and stuff.’ I was horrified. This was new territory, and it was going to be on television.’

A harbinger of things to come, the demands of director Nick Saxton to pose for the camera would reveal an objectification and misogyny that would plague MTV through much of its history, and later became a bone of contention for many other female rock stars of the eighties. ‘It was all about sex appeal again,’ criticised Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. ‘We had forsaken our own integrity to wear all the costumes, the huge hair, and the posing.’ But when Benatar shot the video for You Better Run with Saxton, MTV had yet to prove itself and so she had the power to resist. ‘When MTV launched that August, we were the second video played on the inaugural day, right after the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star. The Buggles were an all-male guitarless band, which made me the first woman…to appear on the network. That day, we were sitting in a hotel room in Oklahoma, where we were staying to play a festival called Rock-lahoma. Miraculously, the hotel we were in had MTV. Someone joked that it was one of the five places in America that had actually signed up.’

But after a successful run of eight perfect minutes, MTV encountered its first problem. ‘Technology wasn’t really ready for what MTV wanted to do at the time, and there was a fair amount of human error involved in the launch,’ admitted VJ Mark Goodman to The Maine Edge. ‘We got through the rocket, we heard John Lack saying, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll,’ we saw the Buggles and Pat Benatar, then there was a little glitch in the Pat Benatar video and it stopped for twelve seconds. Then it was supposed to me saying, ‘This is it.’ But what actually came up first was, ‘And I’m Alan Hunter!’ It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The guy put the wrong cart in the wrong machine. It was pretty much a Bob Pittman nightmare at our launch party, and it was weird. By the way, Alan Hunter still refers to himself as the first VJ because of that screw-up, even though mine was the first show you saw on MTV.’ And to make matters worse, the introductory segment would send with Goodman announcing, ‘We’ll be right back to introduce the other VJs,’ even though, due to the error, they had already been revealed to the viewers moments earlier.

MTV logo

‘The first hour was both comical and embarrassing,’ concurred Andrew Setos, who was the lead engineer and operations executive for MTV. ‘Someone handed me the phone at the network operations centre, and it’s Pittman. Bob goes, ‘Andy, that was the wrong clip.’ He sounded very nervous. I said, ‘Bob, are we on the air?’ And he said nothing, so I hung the phone up. We were doing things that had never been done before. I’d had broadcast equipment specially modified for stereo, a cartridge system designed by Ampex, which played the video clips. There was some video feedback a couple of times, because we had circuits that were crossed in the wiring. We weren’t even finished wiring the place! It was crazy, like any other start-up. Two or three weeks before the launch, Bob had contracted with the record companies to include the artist, the name of the song, and the record label in the lower third of the screen, at the beginning, and end of the clip, for a certain amount of time. Not being a TV person, Bob hadn’t realised how complex it would be to add the overlays. It was a last-minute scramble, and it meant there was no time for any real rehearsal before the launch.’

Excitement for the nation’s number one box-office smash would interrupt the musical shenanigans as a teaser trailer for Superman II was sandwiched in between the videos, before the schedule resumed once again with the first of several offerings from rock icon Rod Stewart. Having first found fame through collaborations with Jeff Beck and Python Lee Jackson, before fronting the Faces, Stewart embarked on a successful solo career in the late sixties and over the following decade produced such Top Ten hits as Maggie May and The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II). ‘On the world’s first nonstop music channel’s first day on air, 1 August, 1981, She Won’t Dance with Me was the third video to be played,’ he wrote in 2012. ‘What this meant was that, within fifteen minutes of the channel’s launch, viewers had been subjected to the sight of me shaking my arse in the rough direction of [guitarist] Jim Cregan, and then bouncing and strutting like a loon around a headache-inducing black-and-white polka-dot set. Eleven videos later, they played Sailing, making me the first artist to be on MTV more than once. Nine videos later, Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? was called off the bench for a run-out; ten more videos after that, Passion got the nod; twelve more and it was Ain’t Love a Bitch…and on it went. Sixteen videos on day one.’

While Stewart was already an established star, the regular airplay that Benatar would enjoy helped to propel her to stardom. ‘I don’t remember how many videos of other artists they played that day or that first week, but it seemed like they played us around the clock, every hour, twenty-four hours a day,’ she said. ‘They didn’t have a full rotation of videos, and back then there were no game shows, no reality shows on the channel, only music videos. After a certain point, they ran out of options and would cycle back to us. You Better Run was inescapable. In one week, our world changed. After Crimes of Passion, I’d become much more recognisable, but it was nothing like what happened after MTV. To have a hit song on the radio was to have someone know your voice, your sound. To have a hit video was to have someone know your face. The semi-anonymity that we enjoyed was gone.’

As the production struggled to keep the action camera moving forward without any further setbacks, the VJs were settling into their new roles, unaware of the surge in popularity that the network would soon receive. ‘We filmed at a place called Teletronics, in the worst part of Manhattan, near the corner of 33rd Street and 10th Avenue,’ recalled Hunter. ‘It was a small studio, so all five of us had to share a single dressing room. Being physically confined like that forced us to relate to each other…We were working sixteen-hour days, mainly because nobody – from the crew, to the office, to us – had a good handle on the job. The whole machine was incredibly inefficient, with the exception of the props guy at the studio, who was this old union guy that I loved, named Leo. Behind the scenes, we kept getting memos changing the strategy, because nobody knew how anything was going to turn out. ‘Get rid of the green plants, they look too corporate.’ ‘Forget the scripts.’ ‘Tell the VJs to stand on their heads.’’

MTV should have shook the very foundations of the music industry, and its creators really believed it had the potential to, but if its launch was anything to go by its days may already have been numbered. Amateur, repetitive, and hardly groundbreaking, it felt like a grandiose experiment that had tried and failed to take off. ‘The first hour of MTV was a total, unmitigated disaster,’ admitted Pittman. ‘The VJs would announce, ‘That was Styx,’ right after we’d played REO Speedwagon. They’d say ‘This is The Who,’ and a .38 Special video would begin. We’d gotten everything mixed up. And we’d also done stereo TV for the first time. So if you’re listening in stereo, it sounds fine. If you’re listening in mono, like ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of people, either the audio wasn’t there or it was totally muffled. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. It was probably one of the worst nights in my life.’

The launch party of MTV was not the ultimate celebration of triumph they had all hoped for, and so its creators departed from The Loft in the early hours of an August morning feeling somewhat defeated. Technological incompetence had almost brought the network to its knees on opening night, and yet despite the debacle its premiere had become, there was still light at the end of the tunnel. This had been a pilot scheme to test the format and so had only been broadcast in the state of New Jersey, and with its flawed opening hour having taken place in the dark of night with little fanfare those who did witness it merely enjoyed it for what it was: a collection of music videos presented by attractive young hosts. But to the surprise of Pittman and his associates, the effects of MTV would be felt almost immediately. ‘MTV gets the Newcomer of the Year Award, hands down,’ declared CableVision at the end of its first month on air. ‘Advertisers love the concept, and the ability to attract the hard-to-reach twelve-to-thirty-four-year-old audience.’ But if MTV was going to reach the entire nation, changes would need to be made, and sooner rather than later.

MTV launch

MTV faced an identity crisis. It was conceived as a youth tool, bringing the latest new songs to the kids of America, but its launch had proved a disaster and in the months that followed, the network struggled to convince the country that it was there to stay. Their marketing department soon realised that they needed to remodel their image I’m order to bring their target demographic into the world of cable television, and after a brainstorming session it was agreed that a new campaign was in order. How could they convince the nation’s teenagers that MTV was necessary to them? What kind of ploy could draw them in? It was decided that the best way to show that the channel was of worth was through the endorsement of celebrity artists, and in that moment they conceived its most ingenious masterplan yet. This would change everything, and MTV finally conquered the eighties.

‘Cable operators, much to our surprise, were not falling all over themselves to carry MTV. As a matter of fact, ‘I’m not carrying that garbage on my cable system’ was a line heard with some frequency,’ recalled Pittman. ‘Our challenge was to persuade the operator that there was a real consumer demand for the network. Tom Freston, our head of marketing, and Fred Seibert, of our creative services group, tackled the issue with the agency; the legendary ad-man George Lois, and his associate at that time, Dale Pon, with whom I had worked with in radio a few years earlier. Pon, Seibert, and Freston came over to my apartment one night a few weeks later with a Cable Brats campaign idea. I couldn’t find the value in defining our audience as cable brats, but a line in the commercial did hit home. After a long night of haggling, arguing, and rewriting that line, ‘I want my MTV’ became the headline, and the call to action.’

More than six months had passed since the underwhelming launch of the channel and the VJs still doubted whether MTV would last. One of the presenters, Jackson, had even come close to turning his back on this venture and returning to the world of radio, and tensions in the studio were growing increasingly high. ‘When MTV launched, everyone was against us. The advertisers didn’t want to advertise with us, and the cable companies didn’t want to carry us, and the record companies, by and large, didn’t want to provide videos,’ explained Quinn. ‘The world was just not going along with us. My favourite story about that is, remember those famous MTV commercials that said, ‘Call your local cable operator and demand, ‘I want my MTV?’’ Well, the reason that campaign started was cable companies did not want to add us. So MTV bought airtime, commercials. The had people like Pete Townshend and Billy Idol telling people to call their cable companies, and cable companies were getting inundated with calls. Then the cable companies would call MTV and say, ‘You’ve got to pull those commercials!’’

Among the celebrities that would be recruited for this ingenious marketing campaign were Pat Benatar and The Who’s Pete Townsend, both of whom were among the first artists to be broadcast on the channel, and British new wave star Adam Ant. The commercials were a success and young audiences began to flock to MTV in record numbers. ‘I Want My MTV took the phenomenon that had taken over the imaginations of young America and supercharged it into a famous brand with just about everyone in the country,’ said Seibert on the campaign he had helped to mastermind. ‘The whole thing was the result of a battle I had to wage at MTV Networks for the better part of two years. It was the work of my mentor, friend, and highly-controversial Dale Pon. He’d been my first boss in the commercial media, at WHN Radio in New York, when it was a country music station. He’d recommended me for my job at Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, as the production director of The Movie Channel, and eventually as the first Creative Director of MTV Music Television.’

The marketing campaign would be ingenious, and as viewers of terrestrial television began to contact their cable suppliers to demand that MTV be made available in their local area, interest in the channel continued to grow. ‘Cable penetration was all-important. People saw the famous ‘I Want My MTV’ ads, with Mick Jagger and David Bowie telling people to call up their local cable company and ask them to add MTV to the line-up. Behind the scenes, they sent the VJs out to glad-hand everybody in the cable industry,’ detailed Hunter. ‘Cable was a male-dominated field, and I could see the disappointment in the men’s eyes when they realised that I was the VJ who got sent, not Nina or Martha. I started a lot of those visits by saying, ‘I’m sorry Martha couldn’t make it.’ I don’t think they ever sent us out to woo a cable operator that wasn’t onboard already. Some of the trips were to make sure they didn’t drop us. I’d fly into a town and get picked up at the airport. Sometimes it was a limo, sometimes it was a limo that had seen better days, and sometimes it was a Camaro with Jenny Sue, the manager, and Bob, the CEO. We were unbelievable rock stars for these people; MTV was so important for them selling their packages to customers.’

After a troublesome launch, MTV was finally gaining the recognition its creators believed that it deserved, and as famous pop and rock stars gave their patronage to this new channel, MTV now felt legitimate. And over the course of the next few years, it would change the lives of a generation of teenagers. ‘When I grew up, there was no cable TV, and the only channel for me was the one running Gillian’s Island reruns,’ stated Brian Graden, who would succeed as the network’s president of programming in the late nineties. ‘When MTV came along, it was the first channel that spoke to me – the seventeen-year-old who loved music. Music is like air at that age; you have to have it. It makes an emotional connection with you.’ With the ‘I Want My MTV’ campaign a resounding success, its influence was about to be cast over the music industry, and there was no going back.

Steve Barron

‘When MTV came along, there was suddenly this twenty-four-hour video outlet, and people are going to start watching these things, so it turned into a market. And because I was there in those few years leading into it and learning about it, I was more ready for that initial explosion,’ claimed Steve Barron who, through the exposure of MTV, would be responsible for some of the most iconic music videos of the decade. ‘It was kind of exciting! A few of us in London had been talking even a year before about how these things are starting to get noticed and people are liking them. We really wanted to do something like MTV. That was an idea that a lot of people were having…a lot of people with no access to the money to make it happen. You could feel it coming; the demand for it was there. When it came along, it was very exciting because it was a vindication of what we’d chosen to do, and what we had been saying to the record companies. Whether we totally believed it or not, we had been pitching the whole idea of the influence of film and television for music. It was a massive moment of vindication, a very exciting moment, and a really busy few years. As you can imagine, it was full-on. Our feet didn’t hit the ground for a few years.’

The impact of MTV would create a new venture for young independent filmmakers called the music video director, and following in the footsteps of Video Killed the Radio Star’s Russell Mulcahy, these ambitious artists brought the world of music television to life. ‘At first we had few outlets for the videos, but then MTV came and we had an outlet,’ recalled director Brian Grant to Rediscover the ’80s. ‘Yeah, MTV had a massive impact, but not straight away. In fact, when it was first suggested that there was going to be a twenty-four-hour music network, we all thought it was mad, we all thought it would never work. But luckily for us, it did. It did change the landscape. It became the new kid on the block, and because there were not that many videos being made and most of them were being made here in London, it did really pique interest. There wasn’t anything on American television like it, and in the first few years it really stole the show. But interestingly enough, in those first couple of years, there weren’t that many videos, so they were rotating the same ones quite often. There wasn’t that much material and, in fact, I was the first director to ever do an interview on MTV, and during that interview I was told that for a couple of years that MGM provided at least fifty per cent of the content on MTV.’

The true birth of MTV came when it was made accessible to other metropolitan areas across the United States, including the city in which was conceived: New York. ‘After a year, MTV finally came to Manhattan cable. I was very excited that I could wake up, go downstairs, and watch it. In reality, that meant climbing down the ladder from my loft bed and turning on my illegal cable. But finally, MTV was on my television set,’ wrote Quinn in the VJ memoir The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave. ‘I found myself watching the channel for hours, because there was a major disconnect between what we were doing in the studio and what was broadcast. At home, I could see not only the videos, but all the cool animation and interstitial spots. Like the rest of America, I was obsessed. I would have a car downstairs, waiting to take me to MTV, but I’d keep it waiting too long…because I was watching MTV.’

Despite the repetitive and somewhat amateur nature of its humble beginnings, before long MTV began to define a generation. ‘After MTV launched in August, 1981, Tom Freston and John Sykes went to one of the few markets where we had been available from the launch date; Tulsa, Oklaholma. Their mission was to find even a faint clue that MTV was finding an audience and having an effect on selling records,’ said Pittman. ‘I expected that Freston and Sykes would really have to dig to find even a shred of the proof we needed. Much to my surprise, the first day of the reconnaissance mission I got a late-night phone call from Sykes, reporting that as soon as MTV hit the air, all the Buggles records in the local stores blew off the shelves, completely sold out. Customers in the stores were talking about MTV, and there was a run on other artists that MTV was playing. It was at this moment that I first realised MTV was a hit, it actually worked. Over the next few years, there were other key moments that pointed to the success of MTV. Designer Norma Kamali began producing fashion videos, and extolling the virtues of MTV as an influence on fashion. Flashdance and Miami Vice were both indications of the success of MTV.’

As the channel received more exposure they were granted access to more videos, and as interest in new promos increased, so too did their production. The symbiotic relationship that Lack and Pittman had hoped for between MTV and the music industry had begun. And finally, after several years of struggling against the grain, behind the scenes the creative team were able to have some fun with their new venture. ‘The weekly music meetings were every Tuesday in Les’ office,’ said Marcy Brafman, the head of the promotion department. ‘All the department heads would come, and they’d be such fun. They’d put on the new videos, and Les would crank up these huge speakers, and we’d all get to talk about why we thought something should come in; and whether it should be in heavy rotation, which was three or four times a day; or light rotation, which was once or twice a day; or lunar rotation, which was, like, once a month. It was exciting, because the music was very exciting then, and it hadn’t been for a real long time.’

But if 1982 had marked the introduction of the channel to the nation, the following year was when MTV became a phenomenon. Over the course of the next twelve months, the music video would be an integral piece of the music industry, and the influence of MTV was undeniable. ‘Beginning in 1983, we began to see the Nielsen ratings, which showed the network to be a consumer success and, in 1984, to be the highest-rated basic cable network,’ explained Pittman. ‘By the time MTV became profitable in the fourth quarter of 1983, it was obvious that it was a success with the consumer. From the perspective of ten years, the entire birth of MTV was an absolutely remarkable process. Built on Steve Ross’ vision of narrowcast cable networks, with his and Jim Robinson’s unwavering support, a small group of entertainment iconoclasts created (often by accident) an entirely new form of television. But what none of us realised at the time was that MTV was not only a television channel, but the voice of our generation. It would go on to have an influence on our entire society, both here in the United States and around the world.’

David Bowie

In just two short years MTV had become a phenomenon. During those early days of the network they struggled to gain the support of even the most obscure of artists. Everyone believed it was destined to fail. But now here he was, sat across from a legend. This was the greatest moment of his life. He felt like a superstar. They may have scoffed at the idea of a VJ, but now he had been blessed with the opportunity to interview the one and only David Bowie. The man was an icon, a chameleon capable of adapting to any new change in the musical landscape. For more than a decade he had reigned supreme as the single most influential and respected artist in the world, and for Mark Goodman it was an honour to be in his presence. But things were not going according to plan. Somewhere during their casual interview Bowie had interrupted the proceedings and turned the questions on its host. He had accused the network of discrimination and demanded to know how he would bring about change. Goodman was just a small cog in a very large machine and had little influence in the world, but now he was on trial for being a bigot and a racist, and it seemed that those who had dictated the rules were now nowhere to be seen.

‘I’d like to ask you something.’ These words punctuated the conversation and turned what had begun as a cordial and relaxing interview into something akin to an interrogation. ‘It occurred to me, having watched MTV over the last few months, that it’s a solid enterprise and it’s got a lot going for it,’ declared Bowie during the promotion of his latest album, Let’s Dance. ‘I’m just floored by the fact that there’s so many, but so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?’ Goodman felt ambushed. He had no say over what the powers-that-be dictated in terms of their daily rotation. MTV had begun as a rock channel, primarily exploiting the popularity of the British new wave scene, but now he was being challenged as to why he was prejudiced towards not only other genres, but other races of people. It was Goodman who was now floored. Struggling to find the right words, he attempted to appease the accusations of his guest. ‘I think that we’re trying to move in that direction,’ he claimed. ‘We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play for MTV. There’s the company’s thinking in terms of narrowcasting.’

Bowie remained unconvinced. After taking a moment to consider his response, he said, ‘That’s evident. It’s evident in the fact that the only few black artists that one does see are on about two-thirty in the morning, to around six. Very few are featured predominantly during the day.’ Goodman felt humiliated. There was only so much he could say to defend the company, and the producers that stood by in the shadows, watching his defeat, did little to rush to his defence. ‘What irritated me was that I felt like a pawn,’ Goodman later confessed. ‘He was just using me to bring this issue into the forefront. I felt like an idiot, and I felt used, and I felt insignificant to David Bowie, which I probably was, anyway. It wasn’t my finest moment. As I thought about it afterwards, I worried that I looked stupid to Bowie, and to the people around me. And I wondered if there actually was an issue. J. J. and I talked about it. He was a rocker, but what he said to me, which I hadn’t really thought about, was that we were playing white people who were basically doing black music. Even Bowie, to some extent. Why wouldn’t we play black artists doing music in the same style?’

The music industry was about to change significantly, and MTV now faced a choice: would they lead, or follow? On the streets of New York City a generation of young Black Americans were developing a style of music that consisted of rapping over the records of their favourite artists while their friends mixed in beats and record-scratching. It all seemed so simple, but it was about to change the world. But there was one artist that would break down the cultural barriers more than any other, who was set to dominate the music industry in a way that had not been witnessed since the days of The Beatles. Everyone associated with Epic Records, and its parent company CBS, were excited at the latest promo video that the company had produced. Ostensibly a performance piece, the clip featured a young man dancing along the sidewalk of a poor neighbourhood, employing his trademark moves to the beat of his latest single. But it was the song that everyone had faith in. There was just something about Billie Jean that felt infectious, and with the accompanying video from filmmaker Steve Barron, they believed they had something truly special in their hands. 

Like many young people in America, twenty-four-year-old Michael Jackson was fascinated by MTV. He had first rose to prominence as a child with the popular group The Jackson 5, before embarking on a solo career in the mid-seventies, but with the advent of the music channel he had found a medium he felt was the perfect marriage with pop music. ‘My brother, I’ll never forget, he’d say, ‘Michael, you gotta see this channel. Oh, my God, it’s the best idea. They show music videos twenty-four hours a day…Twenty-four hours a day!’’ recalled Jackson. ‘So I said, ‘Let me see this.’ And I’m watching it, I’m seeing all this stuff going on, and saying, ‘If only they could give this stuff some more entertainment value, more story, a little more dance, I’m sure people would love it more.’ So I said, ‘When I do something, it’s got to have a story – an opening, a middle, and a closing – so you could follow a linear thread; there’s got to be a thread through it.’ So while you are watching the entertainment value of it, you’re wondering what is going to happen.’ Jackson’s latest album, Thriller, had proved to be a minor success but the record label believed that with the support of MTV, he could become a superstar. But to their surprise, the network seemed reluctant to include it on their roster.

With the music industry somewhat reluctant to embrace MTV in 1981, many of the record labels had included various clauses in their contract in order to protect their interests. For CBS, they had stipulated that if they encountered rights issues with broadcasting certain videos then they would have the power to withdraw some, or even all, of their artists with just twenty-four hours’ notice. This fine print would give CBS all the leverage they would need to fight MTV on their decision to refuse to air Jackson’s new video, Billie Jean. The network had already begun to attract scrutiny for its whitewashing of music, and when news of their decision over Jackson reached the label’s head, Walter Yetnikoff, he decided to take action. ‘I called Pittman and said, ‘You have to play this video,’’ he explained. ‘He said, ‘We’re a rock station, Walter, we don’t play black music.’ I said, ‘That’s great. I’m pulling all my stuff. Then I’m gonna tell the whole world what your attitude is towards black people.’ Then I said, ‘And I’m calling Quincy Jones.’ Quincy produced Thriller, of course. But just as important, Quincy was close to Steve Ross, who ran Warner Communications and was part owner of MTV. If Quincy called Ross to complain about MTV, that would be that.’

Michael Jackson

MTV finally relented and Billie Jean was added to their rotation. But Jackson refused to bask in his minor victory and immediately set about creating a second video. Beat It boasted more of a rock sensibility and even employed the services of guitar legend Eddie Van Halen, and so if there was one song that would appeal to the MTV crowd this was it. The promo would feature two rival gangs embroiled in a life of violence, and despite the wholesome image that had formed around Jackson, he enjoyed subverting this in his portrayal of the peacekeeper between the two factions. Beat It would bring Jackson further acclaim to television audiences, but he felt that the medium had the potential to create real art; that music videos were not merely commercials for a song, but short films which allowed an artist to explore narratives and visuals. He wanted to push this format as far as he could, and after a late night viewing of a monster movie, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. 

‘It was around 2am and I was asleep, in London, the first time Michael Jackson called me,’ said director John Landis. ‘He told me how much he admired my film An American Werewolf in London, and asked if it would be possible for me to direct a music video in which he could turn into a monster. I explained to him that London was eight hours ahead of L.A. I said I would call him when I got back to L.A. in a couple of weeks. Then I went back to sleep. We spoke on the phone four or five times before I returned to California. Michael told me he wanted to make a music video for the song Thriller, and that in the video he wanted to go through the same kind of transformation, from a two-legged man into a four-legged beast, that was in An American Werewolf in London. Rick Baker, who won the first ever Academy Award for Best Make-up for An American Werewolf in London, and I showed Michael movie books filled with photographs of monsters. He found most of the pictures too scary. We came to the conclusion that if Michael was going to dance, it would be a hell of a lot easier for his monster to have two legs instead of four.’

Thriller would redefine the notion of what a music video was capable of. Even artists as groundbreaking as David Bowie had brought little new to the format, but with Thriller Michael Jackson wanted to employ the same kind of tricks as a motion picture in order to create the perfect visual accompaniment to a pop song. And while MTV had initially refused to broadcast Billie Jean, since its overnight success they were enthusiastic at the prospect of collaborating with Jackson. But ever since its inception they had maintained the business strategy that they would not pay for the videos that they aired, and so when Jackson’s manager approached the network with a proposal for MTV to part-finance the video they declined. What they would do, however, was invest in a proposed making-of feature film that CBS intended to release on home video, and with that advance they were able to raise the budget for Thriller. The opening segment of the fourteen-minute video would resemble the popular B-movies of the fifties, during which Jackson would transform into a werecat while on a date with a beautiful young woman. The narrative then shifted to present day, where they were at the screening of a creature feature. On the walk home they would be besieged by an army of the undead, and after Jackson transforms into a zombie, he leads the reanimated corpses in an elaborate dance sequence.

‘The only video we ever paid for was Thriller,’ laughed Robert Pittman. ‘CBS had decided they were going to make only two videos per album. We wanted another Michael video after Billie Jean and Beat It, but we didn’t want to set a precedent of paying to produce videos. So we paid to produce The Making of Thriller, but the money went to pay for Thriller. And it turned out to be the single most successful video in the history of MTV.’ MTV had only proved to be a minor success throughout its first two years, but Thriller would turn the network into a cultural phenomenon. ‘MTV was running a 1.2 rating for a twenty-four hour period,’ said Les Garland. ‘We saw spikes into the tens when we put Thriller on. It was a very smart strategic move, putting MTV over the top in terms of popularity among the target twelve-to-thirty-two demographic. We saw the top of the mountain with Thriller.’ Pittman was determined to exploit their association with Jackson as much as possible and so placed Thriller on the heaviest rotation a video had ever received. ‘We were playing it every hour, and announcing when it would air: ‘Thriller’ is one hour away,’ ‘fifty minutes away,’ ‘thirty minutes away,’’ he recalled. ‘Ironically, we probably would not have gone that far, nor would we have gotten that involved, had it not been for Rick James’s criticism that we didn’t play black artists.’

David Bowie had not been the only artist to criticise MTV’s decision to dismiss black music in favour rock and new wave. Much like Michael Jackson, Rick James had first made his name with the legendary Motown, first coming to prominence in the late seventies with the hit single You and I. But it would be 1981’s Super Freak that turned him into a star. While he had expressed little interest in MTV during its early days, it was at a party when model and singer Grace Jones was asked on her opinion on the cultural impact of MTV, and she deemed it racist, that James felt the desire to speak out. ‘When a reporter asked her about why her videos weren’t played on MTV, she said MTV was prejudiced against blacks. ‘How do you feel about that, Rick?’’ he said. “I feel the same as Grace. It’s racist bullshit, pure and simple. I spend a fortune on my videos, and MTV won’t play them because they’re too black. If they did, I’d sell tens of millions more records. So I say, fuck MTV.’ That statement caused all sorts of shit. I didn’t care. I welcomed a war on MTV, a war I was not about to lose.’ 

MTV was once again labelled racist, a stigma that would plague the network for years to come. They had reluctantly championed Michael Jackson and this had launched them into the mainstream, and now other artists were eager for the same kind of exposure. ‘The worst thing was that racism bullshit. There were artists of colour on MTV: Joan Armatrading, Eddy Grant, the Bus Boys, even Prince. But there were hardly any videos being made by black artists. Record companies weren’t funding them,’ insisted Garland. ‘I ran across Rick James one night in a club. I went up to him and said, ‘My name is Les Garland. Does that mean anything to you? You called me a fucking racist. You don’t even know me.’ He said, ‘Dude, I’m sorry.’ He apologised, I accepted it, and we became friendly. You remember the Eddie Murphy video Party All the Time? Rick wrote that song. And I’m one of the two white guys in the video.’ Michael Jackson had paved the way for MTV to embrace other genres of music, and any accusations of racism were about to be torn down with the arrival of hip-hop.

Clive ‘Kool Herc’ Campbell

Clive Campbell was twelve years old the first time he stepped foot on American soil. He had spent his childhood in the Jamaican city of Kingston, but now his family had relocated to the New York borough of the Bronx. Despite his young age, his imposing figure earned him the nickname Hercules, but while other children on the streets of the neighbourhood were drifting towards crime, his passion lay in music. It was through the street parties of his hometown that his talent for DJing developed, and with access to professional musical equipment through his father’s work as a sound technician, he developed the break beat style that would become the foundation of hip-hop. By the age of eighteen he was displaying his DJing skills around the local community, utilising the bass and dub influence of his Jamaican upbringing into his sets. ‘I came here with my heritage and I didn’t know I would be accredited,’ he told Billboard in 2020. ‘I just respect my people and [those] who gave me recognition.’ As his popularity grew, Campbell, now known as Kool Herc, found himself performing sets in venues around the Bronx, as well as taking up residence at nearby Cedar Park. It would be here in this neighbourhood that hip-hop was born.

Heavily influenced by the music of both Jamaica and Africa, as well as the disco scene of the late seventies, hip-hop was nurtured through the impoverished street and house parties of the Bronx, and soon other artists such as the Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa were drawing attention for their unique styles. Hip-hop gave the youth of the Bronx a voice, and through channelling the spirits of James Brown and Motown, a new genre was cultivated. One of the first stars of this new cultural revolution was Kurtis Blow and his iconic 1980 hit The Breaks. ‘Kool Herc, when a lot of DJs went to disco and started playing disco music, he stayed with the funky soul music that we grew up on. He enabled us to go off to a place where we could hear what we wanted,’ recalled Blow. ‘So, here comes another DJ along that time, around 1976-77, and his name was Grandmaster Flash. Now, Flash understood about the breaks that Kool Herc played and the soul music and how everyone would go crazy when the break would come. They’d do their best dance moves and throw their hands in the air and make a whole lot of noise and scream and stuff when the break came.’

Hip-hop’s first taste of success came at the dawn of the eighties with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s debut single Rapper’s Delight. Produced by Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and published by the recently formed Sugar Hill Records, the song would establish the rap style that would come to dominate the United States just a few years later. Other significant songs would soon follow from such artists as Funky 4 + 1Brother D, and The Treacherous Three. While MTV was prioritising British new wave and New York art punk, hip-hop was developing behind the scenes, and while by the end of the decade it had left its mark on popular culture, in the early eighties the mainstream was reluctant to embrace it. ‘Rap made its way into the pop band Blondie’s 1981 smash Rapture,’ wrote author Wendy Garofoli. ‘Lead singer Debbie Harry rapped towards the end of the song. She even tipped her hat to hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy in the lyrics. The song was the first rap-influenced single to top the Billboard singles chart.’ But it would take the crossover of both hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll before white audiences were finally seduced by its charms.

‘When rap came along in the late seventies, there was something synthetic about black pop music. The most popular black music of the time was R&B made simple for white people to dance to; they called it disco,’ explained Russell Simmons who, along with producer Rick Rubin, founded Def Jam Recordings in 1984. ‘Kids of all colours, all over the world, instinctively seek to change the world. They usually have this desire because they don’t want to buy into the dominant values of the mainstream. Rappers want to change the world to suit their vision and to create a place for themselves in it. So kids can find a way into hip-hop by staying true to their instinct towards rebellion and change. Hip-hop has, in fact, changed the world.’ Together, Simmons and Rubin brought hip-hop to the attention of America with a roster of influential artists, the first and most significant of which was Run-D.M.C.. Formed in the New York region of Queens by DJ Jam Master Jay and rap duo Darryl ‘D.M.C. McDaniels and Joseph ‘Run’ Simmons, the group would be the first hip-hop act to gain exposure on MTV during the network’s early years.

While MTV balked at the thought of including hip-hop artists on its roster, the decision of Run-D.M.C. to incorporate rock into their sound would help to make their music more accessible for white audiences. ‘Rock Box was the first rap-rock record,’ said McDaniels. ‘It took Eddie Martinez’s rock guitar to get us on MTV. Our producer, Larry Smith, came up with the idea. People forget about Larry Smith, but Larry Smith owned hip-hop and rap. He produced our first two albums, and he produced Whodini. The rock-rap sound was Larry Smith’s vision, not Rick Rubin’s. Rick changed history, but Larry was there first.’ Rock Box had hinted at the potential of a rock-rap crossover, but it would be Rubin who took the next step. During the early days of Run-D.M.C., they often performed raps over the drumbeat and guitar riff of a 1975 rock record from Aerosmith called Walk This Way. By 1984, Aerosmith’s glory days were long behind them and they were in desperate need of a hit. Their latest album, Done with Mirrors, had failed to be the comeback they had hoped for, and so reluctantly accepted Rubin’s invitation to hear his pitch. ‘Rick was another long-bearded, hard rock-loving genius who loved our records from the seventies and wanted to help bring us back,’ said guitarist Joe Perry. ‘I knew we had to change but I still couldn’t picture what that would look like.’

Run-D.M.C. and Steven Tyler

Aerosmith hardly seemed like the type of artist that would appeal to the young DJs and rappers that had begun to populate the scene, but it was one song in particular that had resonated with fans of hip hop. ‘‘I consider Walk This Way proto-rap,’ Rick told me,’ recalled Perry. ‘When I asked Rick what he meant by that, he explained, ‘It’s half-spoken, half-sung, and has the swagger of rap. I’m telling you this because I’ve been producing the new Run-D.M.C. record. When I played them Walk This Way, they loved it. My idea was to have them rap over samples of the song with a drum machine, but now I’m thinking that it’d be better to cut a brand new cover, with Steven [Tyler] doing new vocals and you adding the guitar parts.’ Run-D.M.C. had already achieved Platinum status with their second album, 1985′s King of Rock, but all of their singles to-date had failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. Rubin, a fan of rock, and particularly Aerosmith, decided to contact the band’s manager, Tim Collins, to suggest bringing their clients together to rework the track. ‘It was our favourite thing,’ admitted ‘Run’ Simmons. ‘We didn’t even know the name of the group, really. All we knew was we liked the beat. There’s a breaking part in the record where the drums just play and a little guitar comes in. You just cut the start of it, scratch it from record to record, just keep cutting the break part.’

While Aerosmith had often been hailed as blues rock during the seventies, among their early influences were an array of funk and soul artists that had been most apparent through the rhythm section of bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer. Having drawn inspiration from Motown, this element of their sound would help them appeal to the young rising stars of hip-hop during the eighties. How the unique sound of the original recording of Walk This Way came about is a matter of debate, as Tyler maintains that he had created the iconic drumbeat after hearing Perry play the guitar riff during a soundcheck. This beat was then further developed by Kramer. When the song was finally released as a single in 1975 it became a minor success, but even as it developed into a fan favourite through subsequent live performances, it would be on the streets of New York that it made its mark on hip-hop. ‘Those breakbeats, we would listen all day to music trying to find one beat that was good enough for us to rap on,’ said Kurtis Blow. ‘We loved Walk This Way because it was rock ‘n’ roll. There were DJs in the early seventies. When Flash came out, he took it to the next level. He understood that when you played the song, the greatest part was the break, when it came down to the drums. So he decided to play just the break.’

The revelation that an Aerosmith song had become a hip-hop favourite would come as a surprise to both the band and label. ‘For ten years, they’d been cutting Walk This Way’s funky drum pattern from one turntable to another, while teenage MCs worked out their rhymes. These guys had learned to rap to Walk This Way, which unknown to us had been a prime b-boy standard for years,’ stated Collins. ‘I called [Geffen Records A&R executive] John Kalodner, who we relied on for advice on marketing decisions like this. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want them singing with those fucking rappers. Let me look into it.’ John called back an hour later. ‘I think this could be really cool. I think we should definitely do this.’ Steven and Joe were lukewarm at first, but went along for eight grand for a day in the studio. They flew up from Philadelphia…We met the group’s manager, Russell Simmons, and the rappers, who told us they thought the name of the group that did Walk This Way was Toys in the Attic.’  

In March 1986, Tyler and Perry were invited to Rubin’s studio in New York to provide vocals and guitar to a new recording of Walk This Way. With Rubin and Simmons sat at the producer’s desk, Tyler and Perry spent one day updating a track that was first released over a decade earlier, when their producers were still in school. Mixing rap and hip-hop with a seventies Aerosmith track was something that the veteran rock stars were dubious about but the risk would pay off, with the song reaching number four in the US charts. Not only was this the first Run-D.M.C. single to chart in the States but it also provided Aerosmith with the biggest hit of their career to date. Their contribution to this new version of Walk This Way had only taken a few hours, and by the time that they had heard from Rubin about appearing in the music video, they had all-but-forgotten about the experience. ‘I hated rock videos that were literal interpretations of songs,’ confessed Tyler to the Wall Street Journal. ‘But when I saw the Walk This Way script, I liked it. It called for a wall between us and Run-D.M.C. They’d be complaining about the noise we were making, playing Walk This Way, and when they cranked up their speakers and began scratching our record and singing over it, we’d act surprised and want to see what was going on. It sounded like fun.’ The video would end with Tyler and Perry literally breaking down the walls between rock and hip-hop and finally introducing themselves to the MTV generation.

The success of Walk This Way in 1986 would achieve two important missions: the hip-hop scene of New York City was brought to the attention of the nation, and Aerosmith finally achieved the comeback they had so desperately craved. The following year, they reached Platinum status for the first time in a decade with their critically acclaimed record Permanent Vacation, and its lead single Dude (Looks Like a Lady). Fame and fortune would prove to be a double-edged sword as the band were now forced to accommodate the demands of MTV and the music video revolution. ‘All anybody wanted to know about was video. I kept saying I wasn’t into the whole video thing, because Aerosmith is a live band, something that can’t be captured any way but live,’ insisted Tyler. ‘The beauty of a concert is the energy of the show, the event, that night. You’ve got to see it to believe it. You’ve got to be there.’

Viacom International logo

The music video was an art form, but it would not always work in perfect harmony with the artist. A song was merely a product a company wished to sell, and the video was a promotional tool that they utilised in order to sell their merchandise. The phenomenal success of Thriller had raised the bar on what was expected of a star in the eighties, and all the Platinum albums that a group or singer had sold previously became irrelevant as the visuals took precedence. The freedom to experiment and make a statement that had prevailed throughout the sixties and seventies had made way for corporate pop songs that had to reach a predetermined quota. And ever since MTV had been purchased by Viacom International in 1985, the demands became even more rigid. ‘In its initial form, video was a revolution,’ admitted new wave icon Adam Ant. ‘Then MTV became worse than the record companies, and that’s fucking saying something. That’s harsh, but it became very decadent, like ancient Rome in a way. It was all about who you knew, and how many bottles of champagne you sent them. It began as a tough, groundbreaking, sexy, subversive, stylish thing with a sense of humour. Then it became all business. I think the Golden Age ended with Michael Jackson, ironically.’

MTV was first conceived in the late seventies as an exciting new adventure in music and visuals by a group of ambitious young executives, but once thirty-four per cent of its stock was obtained by Viacom, the network became part of a large corporation. It was no longer about innovation and talking to the youth of the country; the mandate now was merely to make money by all means necessary. ‘MTV was in a state of siege in the fall of 1985,’ detailed author R. Serge Denisoff. ‘Their reaction, in Watergate terminology, was ‘stonewalling.’ Frequent critic Tom Shales of the influential Washington Post wrote, ‘MTV is run like a fortress. Inquiries from the press are met with chilly officious evasiveness.’ Shales’ difficulties were understandable as the public’s department’s function is to avoid ‘bad press.’ Shales and Dave Marsh were notorious MTV bashers.’

If there was one video that would continue the innovation laid out by Michael Jackson it came from the most unlikely of sources. A-ha had formed in their native Norway in the early eighties and, like many young groups of the era, had embraced the burgeoning synth pop scene. They had tried and failed in 1984 to gain radio airplay for their debut single Take On Me, but when it struggled to find its audience they returned to the studio to re-record the song they were convinced was destined to become a hit. ‘It was released three times and kept flopping,’ frontman Morten Harket told the Guardian. ‘Things weren’t well managed in the early days. But Jeff Ayeroff at Warner Bros. liked it and put up the team for the video, which was what really got things moving.’ Proving just how necessary MTV had become in the eighties, it was not until A-ha embraced the video format that the public were willing to embrace the song, but instead of merely producing a generic performance piece, they would deliver something truly unique.

In order to bring this to fruition, the label recruited the services of Steve Barron, the filmmaker responsible for introducing MTV viewers to Michael Jackson with Billie Jean in 1983. Following its success, he worked alongside such artists as Dire Straits and The Human League. ‘I worked with Jeff Ayeroff when he was commissioning videos at A&M, on Bryan Adams, and a couple of other artists,’ he explained. ‘When Jeff got to Warner Bros. the label had released a single called Take On Me, by a new Norwegian act, A-ha. The song had failed miserable: no radio play, no MTV play. Jeff said to me, ‘I need an amazing video for these guys. You can have as much time as you’d like. And I’m going to give you £100,000 to do it.’ Which was an unheard of amount, especially for an unknown act.’

To create something unique, Jeff Ayeroff devised a concept in which a woman flicks through a graphic novel, only for the handsome man in the sketches to come to life. To achieve this, he incorporate a technique known as rotoscoping, in which animation is drawn over live action footage. This would come courtesy of animator Michael Patterson. ‘I’d made a short film called Commuter that pioneered the pencil-sketch animation style that I later used in the Take On Me video. I was experimenting with how to create a fleeting impression,’ explained Patterson in 2015. ‘Me and my partner, Candace [Reckinger], got a call from our distributor. ‘This man in Hollywood wants a free copy of Commuter,’ he said. ‘I told him to go to hell, but if you want to call him, here’s his number.’ I wrote it down on a scrap of paper and put it in my wallet. Ten months later, we were in L.A. and running out of money, so I called the number and the guy said, ‘Hey, are you interested in doing a music video?’ Next, we met Jeff Ayeroff at Warner Bros., the [ballet pioneer Sergei] Diaghilev of music videos. He had a doormat outside his office saying Masters of the Universe. He said, ‘I have this idea – a comic book character comes to life and falls in love with a girl.’ For sixteen weeks, all we did was sleep and work on the video; me in the living room, Candace in the kitchen. We made around two-thousand drawings.’

Filmed on both a sound stage and on location in South London, the footage was the combined with the animation drawn by Patterson and Reckinger to create visuals unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. ‘It was a dream to work with talent like that,’ beamed guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy. ‘Normally, videos took a week of shooting in a hangar. But for this, we did a whole day that was only to make the comic magazine. Then four months spent doing hand-drawn drawings. It was very thorough stuff.’ Barron was as equally enthusiastic over the process. ‘I’d been obsessed with animation from an early age,’ he told authors Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. ‘No video director had ever had the time or money to do that. I was in a hotel in New York working on a Toto video, and I had an image flash through my mind of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book. I literally got a tingle.’

A-ha

Much like Thriller beforehand, Take On Me had demonstrated the potential that the music video format had to offer, but due to the high budget costs and time-consuming schedule, labels often settled on videos which showcased the performances of its stars. But even those that offered their fans pyrotechnics and other elaborate set-pieces in their live shows struggled to adapt to a new medium. For KISS, who had gained notoriety throughout the seventies due to their macabre appearance and theatrical shows, the glamour of this new decade forced the four-piece to revamp their style. ‘MTV finally embraced us at some level. We came up with a made-for-MTV unmasking,’ recalled frontman Paul Stanley. ‘Once we took off the make-up, we no longer wore platform boots onstage, and we adopted a more generic style: tight, colourful clothes, sexual and flamboyant. We slid into what was pretty much common at the time.’

MTV had become an institution for a generation of music fans, with music videos accompanied by an array of stylistic commercials and enigmatic presenters. But the demands of the music video for those artists who had found fame before the launch of music television would become almost unbearable. ‘The eighties proved very negative in that respect for me, really just a bitter competition for who could make the most expensive video and show off the most,’ admitted Public Image Ltd. singer John Lydon in Anger is An Energy. ‘All that was created there was a whole new monster of video directors, and they were arseholes to a man. The dictates that would come in from these people were just ludicrous beyond belief. The song wouldn’t matter, the studio work, your lifestyle, your band, nothing…The video was becoming more important than the music.’ 

But as music videos became more ambitious and influential on popular culture, MTV and the concept of music channels received regular criticism. With VH1 created as a pop-oriented counterpart, cable television had come to dominate the majority of American households by the mid-eighties. ‘You weren’t listening to music anymore, you were seeing it. I think MTV had a negative effect on music,’ claimed singer Billy Squier. ‘Video directors were guys who made commercials and used videos as a kind of stepping-stone to movies. There are instances where it worked well. I mean, I’m sure Duran Duran was happy with it, you know? I think videos changed how record companies acted. It’s a force, so you’re going to look for bands that are videogenic. I would never point a finger at MTV and say it’s the Evil Empire. It was a good idea. But then MTV became the biggest radio station in the country, and the most influential. It became this monster.’

As the network began to change behind the scenes under its new management, those who had remained with MTV since its inception ventured out in search of new opportunities, effectively bringing the first wave of MTV to an end. ‘I thought I was going to work at MTV forever,’ admitted Martha Quinn, who was only twenty-two when she was first hired to work as a VJ for the channel. ‘I don’t know why they fired me. I heard later that Tom Freston wanted to can me the night of the 1986 Video Music Awards. It was his first time at the helm; I was in the audience and I was set to interview Robert Palmer. The question that they gave me was, ‘How did your wife feel about you making a video with all of those girls?’ But I couldn’t bring myself to ask him that, because it had just come out in the news that he was getting divorced. So I tossed that question, and because I was wearing Tina Turner’s dress from the Private Dancer video, I joked, Hey, do you think I could’ve been in your video?’ Seemed cute, harmless enough, but apparently Tom Freston was furious. What I heard was that he wanted me fired that night. That was September, and my contract was up three months later.’

By this point even one of its pioneers, Robert Pittman, had decided he had taken the concept as far as he could and now yearned for new adventures. ‘David Geffen had a huge impact on me,’ he claimed. ‘When MTV became wildly popular, he’d said, ‘Are you just going to be a one-idea guy?’ You know when somebody says something to you and it just picks at you? That question picked at me and picked at me. I was thirty or thirty-one, and I had a lot of other ideas I wanted to try. I’d come out of radio, where every year or so I moved to another station. Plus, as a preacher’s kid, we moved every two or three years. I’ve got it in my blood; always on the go. But it was tough, because I felt like I was leaving my family. MTV was my baby. It was a very difficult decision. But at a certain point, I realised that Viacom had taken my company, and my heart wasn’t in it anymore. People would offer me jobs, and my attorney would say, ‘No, not that one.’ Finally, Sid Sheinberg at MCA said, ‘Why don’t you start your own company? We’ll finance the company and split it with you fifty-fifty.’ My attorney said, ‘You should take that deal.’ So I left MTV, and started Quantum Media.’ But even as his time with MTV came to an end, other young wannabe stars were desperate for their moment in the spotlight.

Guns N’ Roses

It was a circus show. In every direction he looked he saw painted faces, outrageous costumes, and demented grins a mile wide. He had been standing there for hours, joining in the chants of, ‘We want KISS,’ as they stared at the empty stage. The thirteen-year-old stood close to his cousin as his pulse raced with excitement, desperate for the show to begin. A large stage had been erected at the centre of Magic Mountain, one of the major summer attractions of Los Angeles, and the concert they were about to attend was to be used as the climax to a television movie based around their favourite rock stars. All the tickets had been given away over local radio stations, and as this army awaited for the moment to arrive, he had never felt so excited. Lights spread out across the night sky as the show began, arms reaching into the air in an attempt to get just an inch closer to their heroes. He had heard their albums countless times while frantically dancing across his bedroom, but hearing this music performed live, and witnessing four rock stars commanding the audience, lit a fire under the teenager. Steven Adler decided right then and there that he would be a rock star too, and a decade later he was one of five that would blow the minds of their young fans, conquering the world with his own group, Guns N’ Roses.

The eighties was the ultimate American dream. Wannabe stars would rise from the gutter, reach the heavens, and then come crashing down to earth when the sex and drugs overtook the rock ‘n’ roll. And nowhere was this more prevalent than the glam metal scene. In the wake of Mötley Crüe’s success at the beginning of the decade, a generation of metal fans were grabbing their guitars and lipstick and making their way to the nearest venue in search of stardom. It was a scene often dismissed as preposterous and vapid, but the fans could not get enough. ‘Hair metal isn’t a guilty pleasure or a joke,’ insisted L.A. Weekly. ‘It’s as indispensable a part of rock ‘n’ roll history as proto-punk, sixties garage, or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Those who laugh at it only show the world how ignorant they are about what makes for good rock ‘n’ roll.’

During the late seventies, the Los Angeles club scene was dominated by the likes of Van Halen and Quiet Riot, with patrons filling the Roxy, Whisky a Go Go, and the Troubadour to catch their latest shows. When Van Halen were signed to Warner Bros., their immediate rise to fame was more than enough to convince others to follow the rock ‘n’ roll dream. Their immediate successor had already gained a reputation for their penchant for hedonism and self-destruction. ‘When Mötley Crüe came on the scene, it was less as a band than as a gang,’ admitted frontman Vince Neil in the group’s memoir The Dirt. ‘We’d get drunk, do crazy amounts of cocaine, and walk the circuit in stiletto heels, stumbling all over the place. The Sunset Strip was a cesspool of depravity. Prostitutes in spandex and needle-thin heels walked up and down the streets, punks sat in clusters all over the sidewalk, and huge lines of new wavers wearing black, red, and white stood in block-long lines outside each club.’ But for those few who made it, Hollywood was the land where dreams were made, and then nightmares created.

The hair metal scene would arrive towards the end of the Golden Age of MTV, and with their long hair, effeminate visage, and outrageous theatrics, they were just what video directors were looking for. And those young musicians looking for a big break had no reservations about whoring themselves to the demands of record executives. ‘Well, after Van Halen got signed, then all of a sudden you see these bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison, and gee, what’s the common thread between all these bands?’ Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony told authors Richard Bienstock and Tom Beaujour. ‘All their singers had bleach-blonde hair, they all wanted to be David Lee Roth. But you know, we did not wear make-up. And I don’t know where they got that part of it from. One of those bands probably started doing it, and then they all started.’

The role that make-up played in the so-called hair metal scene of the eighties had evolved from the glam rock of the previous decade, with David Bowie lending an androgynous element to his music with his Ziggy Stardust persona. In the United States, Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, and KISS had all utilised make-up in order to create unique appearances, while in England T.Rex led the glam rock revolution. Mötley Crüe’s earlier make-up had incorporated elements of cyberpunk and Satanism until the influence of Finland’s Hanoi Rocks prompted a feminine reinvention with their 1985 album Theatre of Pain. The following year, Poison arrived on the scene. Like many other acts of the Sunset Strip, Poison had escaped from a puritanical hometown and headed to the bright lights of Los Angeles. ‘We were playing back in Pennsylvania, which as everyone knows is a sort of Bible Belt region, and we would play under twenty-one shows, shows that were for people that weren’t of age to drink,’ recalled frontman Bret Michaels. ‘And the next thing you know, religious groups are forming outside, and they’re saying, ‘They’re poisoning the youth of America.’ Our band, which at the time were named Spectre – we weren’t Poison – came out here, had a couple of different members, and changed the name to Poison, because it fit.’

While the home of hair metal was undoubtedly the streets of Los Angeles, groups from other corners of the United States soon found themselves spraying their hair and painting their lips. The most successful of these would be Bon Jovi. Formed in New Jersey and initially inspired by Bruce Springsteen, it was the exposure of You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ on a Prayer on MTV in the fall of 1986 that launched them into the mainstream. ‘We’d done well on the first two albums, and there was a lot of other bands who’d have been delighted to have gotten the sales we had,’ claimed singer Jon Bon Jovi to Classic Rock. ‘But our debut had done well, both in commercial and critical terms, and when 7800° Fahrenheit came out, it didn’t do so well. And given the way that the music industry quickly tired of bands who aren’t seen as moving to the next level, I did have a few thoughts about what to do if the label decided to cut their losses, drop us, and back somebody else. And while I publicly never doubted that we had what it took to do well, in the back of my mind I had done one or two contingency plans.

Van Halen

Even more than hip-hop, the music videos that would come from the hair metal scene were often criticised for what naysayers considered misogynistic and designed to merely objectify the female form. Rock music and sexuality would go hand-in-hand on MTV in the mid-eighties. Van Halen’s promo for Hot for Teacher had already fallen foul of a Senate Hearing in 1985, but other videos, particularly those created by filmmaker Marty Callner, were often lambasted for their sexual content. Among his most successful were those he created for Heart, Poison, and, specifically, Whitesnake. ‘I got lots of criticism for the Whitesnake videos. There was a class at Santa Monica College about my videos, taught by a lesbian. Isn’t that funny? MTV pretended to give me guff. They said, ‘Oh no, Marty, you can’t do that.’ Yet they wanted me to go as far as I could,’ he claimed. ‘MTV was great for music and great for the country. The Beatles changed everything, and nothing else changed again until MTV. Everybody watched it to get their style, to know what was hip and cool. It was a lifestyle channel.’

As glam metal began to infiltrate MTV, and in turn produce Platinum-selling albums, other artists were eager to capitalise on this new trend. Def Leppard had first made a name for themselves as part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal during the early eighties, but through the influence of producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, they began to incorporate a more commercial sound. Despite their inclusion on the P.M.R.C.’s list of filthy fifteen, their next album, 1987’s Hysteria, brought them to the forefront of the hair metal scene. ‘We always had this inner demon of pop wanting to come out,’ confessed vocalist Joe Elliott to The Guardian. ‘[Bassist] Rick Savage loved bands like Queen and T.Rex; I loved T.Rex, and Bowie, and Sweet, and Slade. We were always aiming to do something like that, but we could never really pull it together until Photograph. I remember the first time I heard the riff through the studio wall.’ Hysteria would produce a total of four Top Twenty hits in their native United Kingdom, while six tracks would make it close to the top of the Mainstream Rock Chart in America.

But the momentum could not last forever, and by the late eighties the fast guitar solos and cocksure attitude had given way to the power ballad. First populated by Mötley Crüe’s 1985 hit Home Sweet Home, by the end of the decade it had become the requisite of any rock album aiming for commercial success. ‘For us, rock ‘n’ roll is more than three chords. It’s something that actually is your life, and you’re telling a story in your music. It’s almost like an autobiography,’ insisted Bret Michaels, who would draw from a failed relationship to create Poison’s seminal ballad Every Rose Has Its Thorn. In the liner notes to their 1996 Greatest Hits retrospective, Michaels revealed the reaction that his record label had when they first heard the song. ‘Believe it or not, in 1988, Poison was told by several music industry executives that an acoustic ballad would never be a hit,’ he explained. ‘No song Poison has ever written best describes an exact point in my life as this one. I wrote the song in the summer of 1985 in a laundry mat in a Dallas, Texas motel. We were on the road playing night clubs in support of Look What the Cat Dragged In. To me, the ‘rose’ symbolised the fact that my dreams of recording an album and touring had come true. The ‘thorn,’ however, came when a friend from Los Angeles called to tell me that my girlfriend at the time was seeing a musician from a then-famous band, because he had more money than me and a nicer car.’

Every Rose Has Its Thorn was not the first successful power ballad, but its popularity forced other hair metal groups to compose their own variants. Thus, 1989 would see ballads from L.A. GunsAerosmith, and W.A.S.P. One of the more poignant would come from Faster Pussycat. Having emerged two years earlier with their party-fuelled debut, their sophomore album saw them develop as songwriters. ‘House of Pain is about [vocalist] Taime [Downe] growing up without his dad being around,’ explained guitarist Brent Muscat. ‘That really hit home to a lot of people.’ But even as the power ballad brought a softer side to the hair metal scene of Los Angeles, a new band brought sex and danger everywhere they went, and by the end of the eighties they were the most popular rock group in the world.

If Axl Rose had his way, Appetite for Destruction would have been littered with ballads. The album, which heralded the arrival of Guns N’ Roses in 1987, was designed by their A&R manager, Tom Zutaut, to be a punk-infused, dirty rock ‘n’ roll animal, but the band’s cantankerous frontman had penned several ballads he wanted to include on the record. ‘With November Rain, we were almost done recording Appetite,’ recalled Zutaut. ‘I get to the studio and Axl is really excited. He sits down at the piano and he plays November Rain, from top to bottom, and he sings a rough outline of the vocals. And I was stunned. You just knew instantly that it was going to be a really big song. He wanted to add it to Appetite, and I told him there was just no way we could do it. We had already kept off Don’t Cry, and now there was November Rain, which was arguably a better song.’ Emerging from the neon-drenched streets of Hollywood and indulging in the sex and drugs as much as the rock ‘n’ roll, Guns N’ Roses were a force of nature that should never have succeeded. With so many egos, tempers, and vices fighting for supremacy, it was a wonder they didn’t self-destruct before signing a record deal.

Appetite for Destruction would become one of the defining rock albums of the decade, while both Welcome to the Jungle and Sweet Child o’ Mine remain staples of any self-respecting eighties playlist. But, much like with Michael Jackson, MTV were reluctant to bring exposure to the group. Whether it was their decadent reputation or the content of the video clip, the promo for Welcome to the Jungle was initially rejected by the network. ‘MTV was afraid that if they played Guns N’ Roses, local cable systems would throw them off,’ detailed Zutaut a decade later. ‘So Appetite was up to about 200,000 and it was standing still. I got called up to the president of Geffen’s office and he said, ‘This record is over.’ So I went up to David Geffen’s office and I said, ‘Could you get MTV to play the video for Welcome to the Jungle?’ A couple hours later, he said, ‘They’re going to play it at five in the morning on Sunday as a personal favour to me.’ Even in the wee hours of Sunday Morning, MTV got so many requests that it blew their switchboard.’ It had become the dominant medium of the decade, a tool which both entertained and educated the American people, but as the eighties gave way to the nineties its priorities would shift from music videos, and in many ways this would mark the beginning of the end for MTV.

The Real World

It had always been about breaking new ground, of exploring new media frontiers and leading its competitors into a brave new world. Even while cable television had been in its infancy, MTV had created a twenty-four-hour music television channel. And from day one they had refused to pay for the music videos they aired. And yet somehow, against all odds, it had succeeded. But now the network executives wanted to venture into new uncharted territories and not solely rely on the constant innovation of promo videos. As they observed the television landscape, they decided to set their sights on creating a soap opera that would rival the popular shows of the day, but with a unique MTV twist. But through their research the powers-that-be realised that the developing of a concept, screenplays, sets, and casting would far too expensive than what the network would be willing to spend on a show and so were forced to improvise. And as a result, they inadvertently created a brand-new concept: reality television.

Much like Big Brother and the shows that followed in its wake, the central concept of The Real World focused on a group of strangers that were forced to live together while under the scrutinising gaze of a film camera twenty-four hours a day throughout the run of a season. While this formula would become tired in the new millennium, in the early nineties when the show was first developed audiences became obsessed with its voyeuristic potential. The Real World would be the brainchild of producing duo Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray. ‘Mary-Ellis had produced daytime soaps like As the World Turns, and she was working with MTV on St. Marks Place, a scripted show about young people on the Lower East Side,’ recalled Murray. ‘When we put together a budget, MTV was like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t spend this much money. We get our music videos for free, and now we’re going to spend $300,000 for a half-hour of television?’ But Mary-Ellis and I saw this as our big break, and we couldn’t let it go. So we pitched a new idea: six young, diverse people living together. We’d put them in a loft, follow their lives with cameras, and create half-hour episodes. They’d be conflict and growth, and that would give us our story arc.’

Despite being developed as a way to keep budgets to a minimum, the concept of The Real World would appeal to audiences when it was first aired on MTV in the spring of 1992. ‘I’d worked on dramatic shows and music videos and comedy, and things like that, and I’d worked with John Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim before on other shows,’ explained director George Verschoor. ‘When they sold this to MTV, they asked me to come to New York and figure out how to do it. For me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. There’s such a purity in the premise.’ The concept for The Real World would be so simple that subsequent seasons would see the show relocated from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Much like the VJs a decade earlier, the success of The Real World brought unexpected exposure to its stars. ‘It’s a lot of fun, but it’s crazy sometimes,’ admitted Tami Akbar, who rose to fame during the Los Angeles incarnation. ‘I get people stopping me in shopping malls for an hour at a time…And it’s strange. Some people don’t understand that it was our real lives that were taped in that house.’

Much like the launch of MTV in the eighties, The Real World would become a cultural phenomenon, a relatively low-budget reality show that ran for thirty-three seasons over the course of almost three decades, with each series focusing on a new city and cast that took audiences to such varied locations as London, Cancun, and Sydney, before coming to an end in Atlanta in the summer of 2019. Two years later, the original cast of season one reunited for The Real World Homecoming: New York. ‘It was surreal,’ admitted Heather Gardner, one of the seven whose lives were forever changed in 1992. ‘To go back into the same place where we did this thing twenty-nine years ago, you can’t even imagine it. It was just absolutely crazy.’ While it seemed like such a basic concept, The Real World would usher in the dawn of reality television, a revolutionary new medium that would reach new potential with the arrival of the internet. But it was the overnight success of The Real World that proved there was an audience for voyeurism.

Could MTV have continued to survive by broadcasting only music videos, documentaries, and concerts, as it had done in its eighties heyday? One can only speculate, but during the nineties MTV made several creative decisions that it would never recover from. Along with The Real World, the network also introduced the irreverent animated satire Beavis and Butt-Head and its spinoff Daria. As the decade gave way to the new millennium, the juvenile shenanigans of Jackass captured the attention of the world, as did MTV Cribs. Other shows created during the era included Punk’d and Pimp My Ride. MTV’s obsession with both reality television and celebrities continued with The OsbournesThe Ashlee Simpson Show, and Meet the Barkers. But the arrival of YouTube in 2005 proved to be the final nail in the coffin of MTV. While initially launched as a video-sharing platform, the acquisition by Google the following year provided artists with a venue in which they could reveal their latest music videos to the world. MTV now felt more irrelevant than ever.

The Real World Diaries

For a few glorious years, MTV felt necessary. It told us how to feel, how to dress, and what to think. MTV dictated what was cool and who should be adored. It influenced pop culture and politics, and children would spend hours in front of their television sets, waiting for their favourite videos to air. But then after barely a decade, its priorities changed and music ceased to be the main purpose of music television. ‘The Real World turned television upside down. It was good for MTV, but it wasn’t good for music. The scary thing, the most important thing to look at in this era, is the amount of power MTV had,’ explained former Senior Vice President of Music and Talent Abbey Konowitch. ‘The balance at MTV was moving away from music and that’s when I left, in 1992. The things we did, whether it was Guns N’ Roses or a hundred others, we couldn’t do it anymore. There weren’t enough video hours, and more important, there wasn’t the commitment that music was important to the channel.’

The Real World may have given MTV the makeover and commercial boost it needed in 1992, but its shift away from music would prove to be its undoing. Even in the new century, the fallout from this could be felt. ‘In the five years leading up to 2016, with the network in its third decade, ratings plummeted nearly fifty per cent in its core eighteen-to-forty-nine demographic, according to Nielsen, and the network’s operating revenue fell more than seventeen per cent to $1.1b, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data,’ reported Forbes in 2021. ‘The channel was placed in the hands of CEO Chris McCarthy, who embraced the ethos that [former Viacom CEO Van] Toffler says was its recipe for success through the decades: Don’t age with your audience, keep finding a new one for the shows you know already work. McCarthy, then forty-three, revived Jersey Shore, this time sending seven characters from the original cast to Miami for a reunion called Jersey Shore Family Vacation. He stuck with the theme, adding Floribama Shore, and bringing back Total Request Live after a nine-year hiatus. He now oversees more than sixty MTV franchises airing around the world.’

The MTV of the twenty-first century was a poor imitation of the revolutionary innovation it was in the eighties, and for those that played a part in its early success, its subsequent fate would prove heartbreaking. ‘I left before any of that reality TV shit,’ declared Nine Blackwood who, along with J. J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, and Mark Goodman, was among the first generation of JVs that gave the network its personality. ‘I wasn’t part of watching the transition. Why they did what they did? Obviously it’s a bottom line financial thing. Obviously there’re making a lot of money. Alan and Martha will be diplomatic about it…I think it sucks. I understand everyone wants to make money, but at least keep some core of what Music Television was about. I’m disappointed that it went into the direction that it did. And I don’t think it’s cutting edge anymore.’

Blackwood would be the first of the original VJs to leave MTV, and by the time Hunter decided that he would follow his four co-hosts into new and exciting adventures, the Golden Age of MTV had come to an end. ‘Mark was already in L.A. by the time I did my last show. I tried to script out my last thirty seconds on the air, like I was Walter Cronkite signing off for the last time. What was my epitaph at MTV going to be?’ recalled Hunter. ‘There are days when I can’t believe I was at MTV, in the middle of everything. Only when fans come up to me with their own eighties anecdotes does it sink in: That was me, at the best party on the planet. When I left MTV, I felt like a kid with the rest of my career in front of me. Being a VJ wasn’t the sort of job that made you feel grown up. But through all the ups and downs, I’ve had a charmed life – and I have the Buggles to thank for that.’

In the very early hours one summer morning many years ago, a group of executives gathered together in a restaurant in New Jersey to witness the launch of an ambitious new concept called music television. Against all odds it changed the world, but as its popularity grew its ownership changed hands, and suddenly it was no longer the pet project of a group of radical young innovators. Now it was part of a corporate machine, and greed soon took precedence over inspiration. But for those who remember its glory days, it came to define a generation. ‘I can’t say that MTV could exist now as it was in the beginning, but it could have evolved in a music direction,’ insisted Martha Quinn, the youngest of the original VJs. ‘Even now, when I hear the moon landing countdown, or Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, I get goosebumps. I practically want to cry, every time, every single time…We were all one big happy family, fighting for this cause. And we believed so strongly in the power of rock ‘n’ roll!’